The gunman who killed seven people in West Texas over Labor Day weekend was hospitalized nearly two decades ago at a psychiatric facility, where he punched a hole in a wall and menaced security staff with a piece of pipe pried from a toilet before being arrested, according to police.
Seth Ator was being treated in July 2001 at an in-patient facility in Waco, about 105 miles south of Dallas, when he became so violent that staff called the police, Assistant Chief Robert Lanning said Wednesday.
The next month, Ator, then 18, tried to break into a woman’s bedroom after threatening to kill her brother, according to arrest reports obtained by The Associated Press. A day after the attempted break-in, he jumped from a second-floor window to evade authorities but was eventually taken into custody and back to the hospital, where staff determined he had “suicidal tendencies,” the documents show.
It is unclear whether the events nearly two decades ago in Waco and the suburb of Lorena have any bearing on the Aug. 31 mass shooting that stretched from Midland to Odessa, some 350 miles away. It also is unknown whether the hospitalization affected a federal background check that a law enforcement official said blocked Ator from buying a gun in 2014 because of a “mental health issue.”
But an interview with Waco police and reports from the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office portray a young man who was deeply troubled 18 years before authorities say he opened fire in a rolling rampage that spanned 10 miles (16 kilometers). They emphasize a long history of alarming and threatening behavior that did not, ultimately, prevent Ator from obtaining an assault-style rifle.
Officers killed Ator, 36, outside a busy Odessa movie theater after shootings that lasted more than an hour and injured around two dozen people in addition to the dead.
Asked about Ator’s 2001 arrest, the FBI declined to comment on its investigation into the shooting.
Investigators are looking into how Ator obtained the rifle he used despite failing a background check. Last week, they searched the home of a man in Lubbock, who they believe was involved in the “transfer” of the weapon, a federal law enforcement official previously told the AP. The official said federal agents are investigating whether the Lubbock man has been manufacturing firearms but that there have been no arrests.
Through high school, Ator moved between schools in the Texas Panhandle city of Amarillo and Lorena. He was set to graduate in 2001 but dropped out the preceding November to enroll in a GED program, Lorena Independent School District Superintendent Joe Kucera said in a statement.
The following summer, a family in Lorena, a community with a population of about 1,700 people, had a “series of problems” with Ator based on his “relationship” with their daughter, according to the sheriff’s reports obtained through a public records request. The AP is not naming the family because attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.
In July 2001, the mother of the family told a deputy that Ator threatened to kill her son. Two days later, Waco police were called to the psychiatric facility after Ator became so combative and destructive that some staff locked themselves in a nursing station out of fear, Lanning, the assistant chief, said after reviewing reports from the incident. The AP has filed a public records request for the documents.
Lanning said Ator was charged with criminal mischief, but the police records don’t indicate why he was initially taken to the psychiatric facility or if he had been committed. Officials with Ascension Providence hospital, where Ator was arrested, have not responded to questions.
“I don’t know that he was admitted or diagnosed,” Lanning said. “In this particular instance, it appears, that before they really had a chance to do anything, he became destructive and so they sent him to jail.”
Federal law stipulates a limited number of reasons why someone would be prohibited from buying or having a gun. Among them are if the person has been convicted of a crime punishable by more than a year in prison, has a substance abuse addiction, was dishonorably discharged from the military, was convicted of domestic violence or was the subject of a restraining order, or if they have been involuntarily committed for a mental health issue.
FBI records show that in 2018 more than 26 million background checks were conducted, and fewer than 100,000 people failed. The vast majority of those denied were for a criminal conviction. Just over 6,000 were rejected for a mental health issue.
In August of 2001, Ator tried to break into the bedroom of the family’s daughter around 3:30 a.m., removing a window screen “in an attempt to contact her,” according to the reports. The daughter told Detective Mylie Hudson that she woke up and then saw Ator driving away in his father’s vehicle.
The AP’s attempts to reach Ator’s parents were unsuccessful.
The next day, officers found Ator locked inside a bedroom at a Waco apartment where his friends lived. As the officers knocked on the door and tried to get Ator to unlock it, he opened a bedroom window and jumped to the ground two stories below, the reports state. Hudson wrote that he and other officers searched the apartment complex’s grounds but could not find Ator.
The following day, the reports state, officers arrested Ator at another building for criminal trespass and a “suicide threat.” He was then taken to a local emergency room.
Staff at the hospital’s psychiatric facility evaluated Ator, and an officer at the county jail was informed of his “suicidal tendencies” when he was moved to the jail that day, according to the reports. Ator’s parents also told deputies their son had threatened and tried to take his own life, the reports say.
Ator eventually pleaded guilty to evading arrest and criminal trespass. Court records indicate he was ordered to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings as part of his probation. It is unclear what became of the criminal mischief charge.
A prosecutor and the attorneys who represented Ator did not respond to requests for comment. The misdemeanors themselves would not have prevented Ator from legally purchasing firearms in Texas.
Hudson, the now-retired sheriff’s deputy who investigated Ator, told the AP he remembers few specifics about dealing with the man in 2001.
“He just came across as being a nut who didn’t want to take no for an answer,” said Hudson, 74. “Obviously he had problems back at that time.”
AP Only 2019